Songwriter Dru Cutler lives with five other artists in a loft that’s pretty much the epitome of DIY Bushwick. With its soaring industrial ceilings, comfy armchairs and requisite hipster decorations (vintage posters, hanging plants, etc.), Unit J seems to fit the platonic ideal of millennial living spaces, combining creative pursuits, lifestyle and the search for buzz. Over the past three years, the loft off of the Wilson Avenue stop has evolved from a co-living space for artists trying to make ends meet to an under-the-radar performance venue. Now Cutler and his fellow musician roommates are taking it a step further, launching their own record label to represent other artists they’re excited about.
“When you come to see a show here it’s a reasonably genuine thing because you’re in our living room, the dog’s hanging out, and you’re also in a venue,” Cutler told us, sitting at his kitchen table as a roommate whipped up a salad. “It’s one part of each of these things, and that makes it very easy to relax and be somewhat vulnerable to an experience that you wouldn’t have normally had.” Most performances are also recorded by the in-house videographer roommates, so people far and wide can see what’s up.
Cutler, a Tampa transplant, stumbled on Unit J about three years ago. Desperate for a new apartment in the aftermath of a breakup, he reluctantly followed a friend’s tip to an old warehouse crash pad. It wasn’t decked out at the time, but he immediately saw potential–living with musicians and other creators in such a huge space was a chance not only to manufacture a dream stage, but also to build a community. His roommates now include other musicians, actors and two videographers.
“The real vision behind this is that we could do a lot more collectively than we could individually,” he said. “If all the things that we do get promoted under the umbrella of a shared space, then people who like my music might stumble across your music, or people who like your music might stumble upon your acting reel or someone’s video that they made.” They’re not the only ones to hit upon this idea–the Unruly Collective, another co-living space off of the Wilson stop, doubles as an exhibition space and creativity hub.
Of course, getting Unit J in shape took some work. Cutler said he helped spearhead the effort, finding more roommates who were committed to the “concept,” enlisting help to build the stage and balcony, and launching a website to bring it all together. The performance space has gradually become the central axis of the apartment, which is also used for recording sessions and rented out for shows, film screenings and shoots, or even raging parties. The newly launched record label, which includes Cutler’s roommate Eli Bridges and close friends Meg Ferrel and Amos Rose, is already yielding some fruits–they are lined up to play their first showcase at the Northside Festival on June 9, at House of Yes.
While all the bootstrapping DIY-ism and efforts at cross-platform promotion clearly fit into our social media-fluent generation, Cutler’s own music harkens back to a simpler time, blending rock, folk and pop and taking cues from classic artists like Pink Floyd, the Beatles and the good old ’90s alt-rock of his childhood. “Computers allow us to add lots of track effects and lots of things that have the ability to muddy up the message,” Cutler said. “I’m pretty drawn to music that is kind of simple and pure. I like a lot of folk music, I like a lot of music that’s pretty stripped down.” Not that he doesn’t appreciate artists like Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd (he also recently watched Beyonce’s Lemonade, which he called “fantastic”)– he’s just more interested in getting people into a room and making some noise together, flaws and all.
Many of his songs, often solo numbers with piano or guitar, are inspired by feelings of nostalgia. Tastes of forgotten memories, collecting dust in the corner of his mind, seem to haunt him. “Time is this thing that has a weight on us that only we understand and it’s very fascinating to dive through those dreams and those memories,” he said. “They are parts of my life that I had lost, but that concept of nostalgia helped me get them back and helped me feed on them a little bit.”
Cutler also likes to cast his eye on his own generation, playing off their dream and foibles– perhaps another expression of his connection with nostalgia. And at 33 he’s at the fringe of the millennial generation, perhaps distanced enough to poke gentle criticism with some authority.
For example, his song “I want the moon, but that’s not all,” played with the Heart&Hand band, expertly skewers millennial entitlement and the incessant need for more, more, more. The song starts out with cravings for simple things, like time in the backyard and pecan pie. But the desires quickly escalate: “I want two thousand subscribers, two million followers, my face smiling wide on your screen,” he bawls. Then it spins out of control with a chocolate moon, a personal planet, and a wife who will only bear sons “so we can recreate the magic of me.”
Cutler said he wrote the song after he got a new job as a technology trainer for Apple and Amazon. “You would think that when your salary doubles, your happiness should double, but that’s not how it works,” he said. “I was able to buy more food, more drinks, more beer, more gear, but I lost a lot of the things that matter to me, like time and energy.”
He quit last January to focus on his music, and penned the song hoping it might inspire others to step back and reflect on their choices or career direction. “If we have an inner system of very simple values like time and energy with friends and family, rather than more money, more greed, more technology, more gadgets, I just think we’ll be in a better place.”
Meanwhile, the wheels keep spinning over at Unit J–to hear more tunes or stay up to date on the next show there, head over to their website for a trove of videos from last month’s showcase. Catch Cutler in concert next week, playing at Rockwood Music Hall with the Heart&Hand band on May 19th at 10 p.m, or at the Northside Festival on June 9, playing with his Unit J labelmates.